A protester in Hanover, Germany, holds up a sign on Saturday reading: “The United Stasi of America,” a reference to the feared secret police in totalitarian East Germany. A second sign states: “Those with nothing to hide should not fear whistleblowers.” Photo: Der Spiegel/DPA
In an important news report, ‘How the NSA Targets Germany and Europe’, Der Spiegel has reviewed a series of documents which prove that Germany played a central role in the NSA’s global surveillance network – and how the Germans have also become targets of US attacks. Each month, the US intelligence service saves data from around half a billion communications connections from Germany.
According to the listing, Germany is among the countries that are the focus of surveillance. Thus, the documents confirm that the US intelligence service, with approval from the White House, is spying on the Germans, said Der Spiegel, and possibly right up to the level of the chancellor.
Britain has been revealed as the junior partner in this Orwellian scheme. But the European Commission has reacted swiftly and strongly. In a letter to UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, the Commission vice-president Viviane Reding requested detailed clarifications about the scope of the UK’s spying practices and even hinted at legal action.
The new aspect of the revelations isn’t that countries are trying to spy on each other, eavesdropping on ministers and conducting economic espionage. What is most important about the documents is that they reveal the possibility of the absolute surveillance of a country’s people and foreign citizens without any kind of effective controls or supervision.
The Global Network of Undersea Cables. Graphic: Der Spiegel
Many high-ranking European officials have issued statements of outrage and protest against America’s spying. These representatives of the European ruling class pretend surprise at the revelations but have no doubt acquiesced to, authorised or supported similar surveillance of their own populations and of their American counterparts.
Nevertheless, the unanimity of the response is an indication that European governments have been goaded into voicing the concerns of their citizens. The US dragnet of telecommunications and the internet over Europe has never been so visible, as are now, thanks to Edward Snowden, US efforts to persecute those who have brought the spying to public notice.
The NSA’s ‘Boundless Informant’ Programme. Graphic: Der Spiegel
In the USA, the slavish corporate media has condemned Snowden’s actions. Witness a representative reaction in theNew York Times, for whom Snowden is the product of an “atomised society” and lacking “respect for institutions and deference to common procedures”! This daily newspaper, like others in its pettyfogging class and like the American national television channels, bloodthirsty and war-mongering now for a decade, has ignored the point made bluntly by the American Civil Liberties Unionthat these “institutions and procedures” long ago lost their claim to respectability.
Britain has been cast even further into Europe’s data protection wilderness after revelations that its formerly glorious signals intelligence agency GCHQ has been monitoring web and telecommunications on an even greater scale than the NSA. Germany’s justice minister, Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, has demanded explanations from her British counterpart, asking whether the 30-day retention of signals data is based on concrete suspicion or is warrantless (guess which?).
Yet, as Der Spiegel has commented, among the intelligence agencies in the Western world there appears to be a division of duties and at times extensive cooperation. And it appears that the principle that foreign intelligence agencies do not monitor the citizens of their own country, or that they only do so on the basis of individual court decisions, is obsolete in this world of globalised communication and surveillance. Hence Britain’s GCHQ intelligence agency, the American NSA and Germany’s BND foreign intelligence agency create a matrix is created of boundless surveillance in which each partner aids in a division of roles.
At the end of the G8 meeting in Northern Ireland on Tuesday night, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel will hop on a plane bound for Berlin together. Merkel has already boasted that she will make their meeting an awkward one, promising to ask uncomfortable questions about the Prism affair. The image that comes to my mind is that of a pinscher yapping at a great dane, while the great dane just benignly gazes into the distance.
Of course, the pinscher has every reason to bark its lungs out. Surveillance of worldwide internet communications, as practised by the National Security Agency (NSA) through Prism, is the stuff of Orwellian nightmares. Any democratic system rests on the idea that its citizens can think and act freely – but no individual can act and think freely while being watched. The very fact of being watched means that we act differently. Unsupervised communication between individuals is an essential precondition for a functioning democracy.
There will always be people who dismiss complaints about state surveillance as hysteria. Since 11 September 2001 it has become increasingly easy to discourage those who care about their fundamental rights. Just insist that a new measure will aid the fight against terrorism, and that legitimises it. Particularly in Britain and the US, many people seem surprisingly blase about the idea of the state watching over them.
I despair at such indifference. Germany endured two totalitarian systems in the 20th century. Not just Nazism, but the GDR too, built a dictatorship on the surveillance, registration and selection of individuals. People became objects who were divided into nebulous categories. The fight against terror requires a similar division of civil society according to sex, age, ethnicity, religion and politics. The problem with such machine-led screening methods is not only that it is very hard for people to escape them once they get caught, but that they no longer presume innocence – everyone is now a potential suspect.
Because of this, Germans have traditionally been more sensitive to assaults on their private sphere. There are fewer CCTV cameras, and Google’s Street View project was met with widespread resistance in 2010: click yourself through a map of Germany and you’ll still find large areas still pixelated. A few weeks ago, Germany published its first post-reunification census – the previous ones in the 1980s were widely boycotted on ethical grounds. But that Germany hasn’t reached the level of the US is not thanks to politicians’ sense of history, but to the so-called “basic law” that anchors our constitution and the federal constitutional court that protects it. One “security law” after the next has been proposed and then rejected by the court for infringing on civil rights.
But being a little more sensible on civil rights issues than other European states will no longer do. On the contrary: with its unique historical background, Germany should be leading the charge against any form of Big Brother system.
Having been raised in East Germany, Merkel especially should know what is at stake here. She experienced in her youth how long-term surveillance can demoralise the human spirit and distort the character of a society.Explaining that to her American counterpart would be a start for Merkel. She should explain to him that there is a lesson for the rest of the world in Germany’s history. In the 21st century, modern technology will take the possibility for total surveillance to a completely new level. Compared with what Prism allows you to do, Stasi activities look like child’s play: the size and speed of the data flow threatens to overwhelm the lawmakers who are meant to control it.
My fear is that Merkel’s protest will be hard to take seriously, and that Obama will notice this. Since 9/11, Merkel’s government has also passed laws that allow the state to virtually x-ray its citizens. Der Spiegel recently reported that Germany’s equivalent of the NSA, the BND, is planning to expand its web monitoring programme over the next five years.
Ultimately, Merkel’s emphatic concern about the Prism affair stems from the fact there will a federal election in Germany in September. It’s a convenient chance to demonstrate a bit of political spine. Once the pinscher’s done with the yapping, the great dane will give her a kindly smile and assure her that everything is happening within the law. After that, the excitement about Prism will soon evaporate, and they in America and we in Europe will continue collecting data.
Data protection is to the communication age what environmental protection was for the age of industrialisation. Back then, we lost decades because we didn’t realise how severe the damage we were causing really was. Let’s try not to make the same mistake twice.
• This article was amended on Tuesday 18 June. Angela Merkel was born in Hamburg, not East Germany, as the seventh paragraph originally stated. She was raised in East Germany.
t’s unclear how many Americans are paying attention to the trial of Private First Class Bradley Manning, which got underway this week after three years of preparation. But it is far more than just a domestic legal matter: it is a global event that continues to shape international perceptions of the United States, its policies and values.
The compromise of hundreds of thousands of internal U.S. documents through WikiLeaks was unprecedented in its size and scope. In ways large and small, it touched virtually every country in the world. Since the United States remains the world’s predominant power (notwithstanding a domestic political debate to the contrary), there is something in this now omniscient archive for everyone: lots to admire about America if so inclined or grist to criticize, which more people around the world have been inclined to do in recent years.
Bradley Manning says he distributed the vast array of documents, including diplomatic cables and raw military intelligence reports, to start a debate. In this, he succeeded. Because these detailed accounts of American policies, actions and analysis are online, it is the gift that will keep on giving indefinitely.
Given its unique nature, the Manning case is viewed through several different lenses.
It is seen as a test of the U.S. commitment to freedom of the press. Julian Assange is not a journalist, but he formed a successful partnership with many leading global media outlets–The Guardian, Le Monde, El Pais, Der Spiegel, The New York Times, Al Jazeera and Asahi Shimbun–to report on the material. That makes it difficult to separate Assange’s actions from those of real journalists.
The United States has investigated Assange as a potential co-conspirator and that makes some leap to the conclusion that journalists could be investigated that way too. The unfortunate convergence of the Manning case with other aggressive leak investigations adds force to this argument.
If the United States is perceived as at war with the Fourth Estate, whether true or not, it becomes more challenging for Washington to credibly point fingers at media censorship in Beijing, Moscow and the Middle East. By no coincidence, Russian, Chinese and Arabic broadcast networks were avid reporters on the Manning case this week with hourly updates and lengthy panel discussions on its implications.
Perhaps the most troublesome of Manning’s leaked material was the so-called Collateral Murder video that depicts a trigger-happy Apache gunship crew attacking civilians (including children) and journalists they mistook as insurgents. The U.S. military viewed the video as the fog of war, but much of the world saw it as evidence of America’s flawed strategy in Iraq. As a result, many see Manning as a whistleblower, not an enemy of the state.
Global perceptions of military justice are already challenged by the existence of the military prison at Guantanamo and military commissions that have yet to meet international standards of justice. Many question whether Manning will receive a fair trial. The answer is yes, but the international skepticism has meaning.
Despite coming into office in 2009 committed to resetting global perceptions of the United States and its foreign policy, the Obama administration has taken an arm’s length approach to the Manning prosecution. The president declined to question the pre-trial treatment of Manning in the brig at Quantico even though a United Nations report termed it “degrading.” Even the trial judge in the Manning case concluded it was excessive.
The Army did make important adjustments in Manning’s pre-trial confinement, but in the courtroom, it is now vigorously pursuing the charge that Manning “aided the enemy” through WikiLeaks. A conviction could result in a life-sentence.
In doing so, the military passed up a potential plea-bargain, a step done routinely in the civilian justice system. In February, Manning pled guilty to a number of charges that carry a 20-year jail sentence. This was more than enough to send a stern message to those in government charged with protecting the national interest and safeguarding classified information: fail in your duty and there will be stiff consequences.
While Manning clearly harmed U.S. national interests and placed lives in jeopardy, it’s hard to argue that he “aided the enemy” any more than the Apache crew or those responsible for Abu Ghraib.
Instead of a plea-bargain that would take Manning off the global stage, his trial will continue for weeks, and with it an unwelcome summer rerun of difficult decisions, questionable policies and flawed perceptions that can only further erode global perceptions of the United States.
None of this is necessarily true or fair, but in our globalized and interconnected world, perception easily passes for reality and can have lingering and important long-term consequences.